There’s a hangdog modesty to Phil Smith’s style that might make you think this is…somehow less than it is. His mournful Americana moseys along, a lost character, walking slowly but steadily through the dust. It might not impose itself on you, but if you pay attention, around the acoustic strumming there are subtle licks of banjo, mandolin, piano, steel guitar and fiddle, fine production and – the key ingredient – classic songwriting by a bloke who knows how to write.
Year Of The Dog is Phil’s third album and – if you couldn’t tell just by listening to it – his press release will somberly inform you that he had a pretty crap year, last year. You can see him there on the cover, looking like Steve McQueen, but a humbler one, more worn down by life. Whatever sadnesses he’s carrying he ably puts them to work here, beginning with the Americana twang of Calling Home and putting a brave face on life’s long-haul. He even has the bravado to throw in a few cheeky blues chords at the end; I’m not really sure they fit, it’s sorta like someone who’s made a lifetime habit of frowning trying to crack a smile: it’s just a bit off.
Musing on the ephemeral nature of love and the sad truths of things which are more permanent, the breezy but wistful Broken Rivers is an excellent song. Whoever decided to throw in the girl oohing on the fifth probably deserves a golden-guitar by themselves. I could only have enjoyed the song more if it had been extended by a guitar solo before a final chorus – it’s worth it.
The bittersweet mandolin, fiddle and acoustic combo of Homeward Bound is probably the most easy-going version of the oft repeated theme of the journey from catastrophe, back to salvation. Another one of my favourite songs on the album, Avenue Girl, starts to move away from Americana, into a folk that – at least in this song – sounds much more European, with piano accompaniment and a slinky quality that isn’t always a part of Smith’s work, but reminds me of, say, Serge Gainsbourg?
Nightwinds steps back from such Euro-decadence, turning to steel guitar, whiskey and a woman that’s leaving, it doesn’t come much more American than that. Still, there are others which eschew the overtly rootsy gestures, almost like they lack the will to belabor the sad folk warmth of a song like The Ballad Of Joseph Henry.
In a truly country gesture The Year Of The Dog closes with Sometimes You Laugh, taking an even-handed approach, even finding the upside in a bloke drinking himself to death. Only recently I was talking about roots music and notions of ‘authenticity’, a troubling proposition at the best of times. At the end of the conversation, it was hesitantly agreed that – in the absence of any other licence – deep sadness is one of the best reasons to strum lonesomely in the back of a trucker’s bar. Phil Smith may never find the home he so often pines for in his music, but he’s making some fine music along the way.